Harvard’s Newest Foe: It’s Again the Focus of a Challenge to the College Admissions Process

From a story on politico.com by Bianca Quilantan headlined “Harvard’s newest foe”:

Harvard University is yet again the focus of a challenge to its admissions process. But this time, the civil rights groups, Biden administration officials and liberal lawmakers who were allies in the fight to protect race-conscious admissions are now its opponents.

At issue? The Ivy League institution’s use of legacy preferences.

The Supreme Court’s decision to gut the use of affirmative action in college admissions has sparked a new drive to find other ways to boost underrepresented applicants and curb some of the most common practices that act as discriminatory screens.

Perhaps the biggest target is the advantages the wealthy and well-connected are privy to in college admissions. Harvard’s admissions process, like that of many elite colleges, gives preference to applicants who are athletic recruits, the children of alumni, related to donors and children of faculty and staff.

The Supreme Court’s decision heightened long-simmering frustrations over the practice. And now the Boston-based group Lawyers for Civil Rights is ready to make an example out of Harvard, one of the nation’s richest, most-selective colleges.

Lawyers for Civil Rights recently filed a civil rights complaint with the Education Department over Harvard’s use of legacy preferences in admissions, and The Recast got on the phone with LCR Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal to discuss the challenge.

Legacy and donor-related applicants are about six to seven times more likely to be admitted to Harvard compared to students without those connections, Espinoza-Madrigal said, and almost 70 percent of those students are white. That preferential treatment violates federal law, he argues, because the university is admitting predominantly white students through the policy and excluding non-white applicants.

The complaint has thrust the Biden administration squarely into the fight over money, race and privilege in education, and the complaint’s outcome could have major repercussions for the pursuit of diverse college campuses and future applicants.

And the White House appears eager to join that debate. President Joe Biden has said he wants colleges to reconsider practices that favor the wealthy and well-connected, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is moving quickly to do what he can. Cardona’s department has opened a federal investigation into the LCR complaint on whether Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences in undergraduate admissions discriminates on the basis of race.

The debate has also already spread to Capitol Hill. Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Chris Van Hollen along with Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill to make legacy admissions illegal. They’re also trying to get Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott on board.

Meanwhile, several colleges aren’t waiting for the outcome of the legal challenge. Wesleyan University, Carnegie Mellon University, Occidental College, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech have gotten rid of or pared back their use of legacy preferences since the Supreme Court hollowed out affirmative action.

Here’s more from our chat with Espinoza-Madrigal on the group’s strategy and why it chose Harvard.

THE RECAST: Let’s start with the scope of the issue. How widespread would you say is the use of legacy admissions in higher education?

ESPINOZA-MADRIGAL: The use of legacy and donor preferences in university and college admissions is widespread, particularly among selective and elite universities where the children of alums and those connected with donors have a significant advantage.

At a place like Harvard, students with ties to donors or an alum are six to seven times more likely to be admitted. These so-called legacy students can make up nearly a third of the class at places like Harvard.

THE RECAST: You could have chosen a number of colleges for your legal challenge. Could you explain why the complaint had to be against Harvard’s use of legacy preferences instead of another institution?

ESPINOZA-MADRIGAL: The complaint was filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights against Harvard for several reasons. First, Harvard was the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Second, Harvard is a university of international renown and it sets a tone for what other universities are likely to do.

And Lawyers for Civil Rights identified Harvard because it is in our own backyard. We brought the federal complaint on behalf of three community-based organizations: The Chica Project, the [African Community Economic Development of New England] and the Greater Boston Latino Network.

These are organizations that spend a significant amount of time and resources supporting, mentoring and empowering youth of color and low-income youth. These are precisely the type of students that are being excluded by the legacy and donor preferences.

THE RECAST: I want to push you a little further on this. Legacy admissions have been around for a while and that disparate impact has also been affecting people for a very long time. Why is now the time to be challenging this preference?

ESPINOZA-MADRIGAL: The timing of the lawsuit was based on several factors, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling. The Supreme Court is specifically saying that it wants to eliminate all forms of preferences. This has to be taken seriously.

And preferences have run not just along the lines that people typically think about when they are imagining affirmative action. Preferences also run along racial and class lines. When we talk about donor and legacy preferences, it is an overwhelming advantage. College admissions should be based on merit. It should be based on what you know, not who you know. It should be based on your scholastic achievements, not your family’s ability to write a check.

In the United States, we need to keep front and center issues of fairness and access. This means eliminating donor and legacy preferences to level the playing field and open opportunities for people who do not see themselves reflected at Harvard.

THE RECAST: The complaint filed doesn’t go through the courts, but through the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. What is the reasoning behind choosing this avenue?

ESPINOZA-MADRIGAL: We are keeping everything on the table, but turning to the U.S. Department of Education to launch a federal civil rights investigation into Harvard is a deliberate and intentional first step in this legal process.

Shortly after filing the federal civil rights complaint with the Department of Education, the federal government opened an investigation. We are seeing immediate action and we anticipate that the investigation will unfold thoroughly and swiftly. We are approaching a new college admissions cycle and students, families, schools and admissions officers should all have clarity on how the admissions process should work.

We are also seeing immediate impact with a number of schools voluntarily announcing changes to their legacy and donor policies.

THE RECAST: If the department finds in your favor, the decision is likely to affect change at other institutions who use the practice. But what about the schools who serve different missions and don’t have a history of exclusion but still consider legacy status like historically Black colleges and universities? Should there be carve-outs for them?

ESPINOZA-MADRIGAL: This question is connected to a series of other inquiries we have received about athletes receiving preferential treatment, for example, among other types of situations that emerge in the college admissions process.

I think the most important thing to remember here is that we are talking about the most clearly discriminatory conduct and exclusionary impact. And when we look at this textbook example of discrimination and exclusion, it’s coming from Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preferences. And so we are not at this time taking a position on other aspects of the college admissions process because we are focused specifically on the most clearly discriminatory and exclusionary practices, which we are seeing at places like Harvard.

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